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Sugar cookies are tender cookies with crisp edges made from a very basic dough which is easy to manipulate with added ingredients for cooks who get bored of the simple flavor of the original sugar cookie. These simple cookies are associated with the holidays for many people. Since the dough is designed to be rolled out and cut into shapes with cookie cutters, cooks can create an assortment of holiday cookies and decorate them with frosting and candy. Many bakeries carry sugar cookies, for people who do not want to make them at home.
The earliest form of the sugar cookie probably originated in the medieval Arab world, when cooks made sweet cakes with sugar, flour, and shortening. These cakes spread across Europe, and they were carried to the New World with European settlers. Around the 1700s, the modern form of the sugar cookie emerged in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where German settlers made cookies which came to be known as Nazareth sugar cookies.
To make sugar cookies, sift together three and one half cups flour, one teaspoon baking powder, and one quarter teaspoon salt, and set aside. In a large bowl, beat one cup of butter and then blend in one and one half cups of sugar. Beat two eggs and two teaspoons of vanilla into the butter and sugar mixture, and then mix in the dry ingredients. The resulting stiff dough should be refrigerated to make it easier to work before you roll it out.
Once the dough has been chilled, you can break it into manageable chunks and roll it out on a lightly floured surface. Use your cookie cutters of choice to cut out shapes in the dough, and bake your cookies on an unoiled baking sheet at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius) until the edges start to brown. Cool the cookies on racks and frost as desired or serve plain.
One common problem with sugar cookies is that frosting can make them slightly soggy, especially if they sit for several days before they are eaten. You may find that royal icing forms a lighter crust which does not turn the cookies mushy. It is made with two egg whites, two teaspoons of lemon juice, and three cups of powdered sugar; you can separate the icing into small bowls after it is mixed and use food coloring to create colored icings.
In addition to making basic sugar cookie dough, you can make spicy sugar cookies by adding ingredients like ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon, or you can add things like crushed nuts for a more rich, nutty flavor. The basic sugar cookie dough is quite forgiving of small changes and manipulations, like substituting orange or almond extract for the vanilla, so feel free to experiment with it.
I'd also recommend using real, unsalted butter in the dough. That will help the cookies brown and will also give them a better flavor.
Another way to roll the cookies is to shape them into a firm cylinder, chill and then cut the cylinder crosswise into rounds. If you don't plan on fancy decorating, this is much easier than rolling out the dough. It's a good way to freeze the dough for later use, too.
I've also had some success with using almond flavoring (just a tad!) in the cookies, along with some orange zest and juice. This gives them a different flavor.
You need to use good vanilla flavoring for sugar cookies. Don't get the imitation stuff (or the "white" kind, heaven forbid!). You need a good vanilla that will make a good cookie. Using imitation vanilla flavoring will give the dough an "off" flavor every time.
I also add an extra pinch of salt to the dough, just to give the cookie a little more bite. It makes the cookie taste better, in my opinion.
Remember to the let the dough chill for 30 minutes or an hour before trying to roll out the dough. That gives the dough a chance to rest and it does make the rolling job a little easier.
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